Duke Trying to Strike a Balance With Its Perimeter DefensePosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 15th, 2013
Everyone knew Duke would be a very different team this season compared to 2012-13. Last year’s team was built around three seniors — Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and Seth Curry. Plumlee was an athletic big man, but the other two relied on a high skill level to make up for a lack of elite athleticism. That team was clearly better offensively than defensively and had a very good year with a run to the Elite Eight and a loss to eventual national champion, Louisville. With the addition of some quicker and more athletic players, the expectation for this season was that Duke would get back to the effective pressure defense that Blue Devil championship teams of the past had shown. That was clearly not the case in Tuesday’s Champions Classic loss to Kansas. The offense was good, scoring 83 points in a 75-possession game, but the defense was not, allowing Kansas 1.25 points per possession and matching the worst performance Duke’s defense had in any game last year.
So what went wrong? There could be multiple reasons. but they may not all be fixable this season. The first explanation is that this is still a young and developing Duke team and it was only the second game of the year. Perhaps the ease with which the red-hot shooting Blue Devils dispatched Davidson in their opener gave the Blue Devils a false sense of where they really were as a team. That mentality seemed to be at issue down the stretch against Kansas. In his postgame interview, Mike Krzyzewski lamented the fact that his team just couldn’t get stops when they needed to, as if they were in a mindset that they could just outscore Kansas.
A look at the game play-by-play bears that out. Jabari Parker hit a jumper with a little over five minutes to go, putting Duke up 73-72. From that point on, Kansas scored on every remaining possession with 22 points in 12 trips including a 14-of-17 run from the free throw line. And more alarming, all but two of those free throws were shot by perimeter players. Duke’s interior defense was expected to be tested by Kansas’ size, but most observers thought that they would be able to guard well enough on the perimeter. It appears that the Blue Devils are still adjusting to the new emphasis on limiting defender contact and have yet to find the balance between legal and excessive pressure. But there is still plenty of time to improve. It will be interesting to see if things are better in Duke’s next two major non-conference tests. It’s expected that Duke will face Arizona in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off on November 29. The Wildcats should be similar to Kansas in that they are big and talented. Then comes Michigan at Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on December 3. Those two games should tell us if Duke’s defensive performance against Kansas was just a bad night or really a concern going forward.
Looking beyond this year, it appears that Duke will be changing styles again, and for good reason. With the dual announcements that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones will join the Blue Devils next year, speculation begins on how they will be utilized. Based on what we have seen so far, Parker probably won’t be around for a sophomore season. So look for the offense to mirror last year with Okafor taking on the Mason Plumlee role, as Coach K enables the skills of his dominant post player. This will probably result in more open looks for wings such as Rasheed Sulaimon and Rodney Hood on the perimeter (assuming both return). The defense would also get a boost if Justice Winslow decides to come to Duke next year, joining his USA Basketball friends, Okafor and Jones. It will also be interesting to see how Krzyzewski balances a crowded backcourt. By all accounts, he loves how Jones runs a team so we should expect the talented freshman to be the primary point guard. That would leave Quinn Cook taking on a lesser role as a senior, which may be tough for him after two seasons as a starter. His best bet would be to improve his defense and the consistency of his decision-making this season to earn the trust of the coaching staff going forward — then perhaps he could find minutes at the two as well as providing backup for Jones on the depth chart.